When times get tough, people look for comfort and familiarity. Hunkering down in the family room with the fireplace roaring, focusing on life’s simple pleasures or filling up on turkey, ham or pot roast at the holidays is as good as it gets for many right now. Comfort food, all the pundits say, is the in thing as the whole country weathers this financial tempest.
We had no way of forecasting the financial tribulations of the final quarter of 2008 when, in early September, we began this year’s search for our Processor of the Year. Hormel Foods was attractive even then for a number of reasons.
Foremost, it’s rare to see such a tight integration and interdependence among product development, process development and packaging. But that’s the kind of cross-functional teamwork needed to put shelf-stable meals in microwavable plastic trays. Or to use high pressure, not heat or chemicals, to pasteurize delicate deli meat — and to call it natural. Or to create a frozen but oven-ready turkey you cook in the bag.
We made our choice based on those and a number of other examples. But in the ensuing months, especially as the fortunes of several other food and beverage processors began to tank, Hormel became a stellar choice.
One of the first things that stood out on our visit to the company’s Austin, Minn., headquarters is the longevity of its employees. We talked to Phil Minerich, the head of R&D: 32 years of service; Steve Binder, group vice president of refrigerated products: 29 years; Gary Ray and Russell Potter, two top execs who are retiring this month after 40 and 33 years, respectively. Don’t forget the company name, itself, which has been in use for 117 years.
We also were surprised (and impressed) by the cross-training within the company. As our lead story begins: The chairman/CEO used to be the corporate attorney, then did some marketing and later was treasurer. The communications vice president was a product manager. The vice president of research and development started in the quality control department and later worked in packaging. One of the operations vice presidents was head of turkey sales and marketing. Earlier this month, the president of the turkey group switched jobs with the vice president of the specialty foods group.
There’s the fact that Hormel still fields an engineering group that builds some of its own equipment. That’s an edge most food processors gave up a decade ago.
Then there are the products. From ones that have endured for 70-plus years (Hormel chili, Dinty Moore stews and SPAM) to cutting-edge ones such as Natural Choice deli meats and Compleats shelf-stable entrees, this is a company that is not afraid to innovate and sticks with a good idea through lean years. It’s also a processor that carefully tend to its mature and trusted brands and products even as it pushes the envelope for new ones.
And check out this quote:
"I went back, determined to make the business a success in spite of all the hurricanes out of Wall Street.”
As timely as that sounds, it’s not something Chairman/CEO Jeff Ettinger said recently. That was written by founder George Hormel, himself, in 1894.
Hormel joins an impressive list of Processors of the Year: Tyson Foods in 2005, Kellogg in 2006 and Mars’ Snackfood Div. in 2007.
And let me ask you a favor. E-mail invitations to our seventh annual Readers’ Choice Awards should have arrived in your in-box Dec. 3 and 12. This is one of our most important surveys of the year, so please take this brief, online survey. If you didn’t get the e-mail link, send me an e-mail requesting either the ingredient ballot or the equipment ballot.